A Staple in every Palestinian Cuisine: "Thyme" is Subject to Chemical Contamination
By: Ruba Anabtawi
Za'tar field in Kafr Jamal in Tulkarem area
Exclusive to Environment and Development Horizons:
The organic farmer Murad Al-Khafsh is pleased with his thyme crop in the village of Marda, Salfit district, which covers his family and some relatives’ needs. He doesn’t use chemical inputs - only a simple natural mixture to protect his crop from aphids and harmful insects. This mixture consists of onion, “baladi” garlic, hot pepper and dissolved soap made of olive oil or ”Nabulsi soap”, where these natural ingredients are soaked in a liter of water for one day then to each concentrated liter, ten times the water is added in order to irrigate the crop. If the thyme has a powdery mildew disease, however, it’s processed using milk.
“I learned this way of processing through my work as a farmer in the farm of MA’AN Development Center in the early 2000s. I found it to be an easy and safe way, therefore i continued using it until I established my own agricultural project", says Murad, whose farm has become one of the pillars for sustainable farming system in Palestine.
Murad’s farm produces a small amount of thyme to cover the needs of his family, but what about the large farms that produce dozens of acres of thyme? How do they deal with harmful pests and diseases in safe ways? Questions raised by Afaq magazine after a follow-up with official bodies that confirmed the damage of large amounts of thyme in recent years. The Palestinian food that has been passed down for thousands of years on our breakfast tables along with oil and olives has become a source of concern due to frequent and intensive spraying of chemical pesticides by farmers.
Laboratory tests carried out in several Palestinian laboratories during 2016 (in dried thyme or ground with sesame) showed high percentages of chemical residues in 60% of the thyme samples, especially the pesticides of Difenconazole and Sypermethrin.Tebuconazole.
The Effect of Pesticides on Human Health
The Palestinian environmentalist, George Kurzom questioned the danger of these residues and the continuous exposure to them; he indicated that the results of the samples confirmed that Indacor pesticide (the commercial name for Difenconzaloe- C19H17Cl2N3O3) is used and its danger lies in its containment of chlorine atoms; it is a frequent pesticide and fungicide. Adding that in the long term, repeated exposure to this chemical compound may cause cancer, genetic abnormalities, poor human fertility and impaired lung function.
Tebuconazole may cause cancer in the case of repeated exposure, as well as endocrine disorders and liver poisoning, in addition to poisoning groundwater. In the short term it may cause liver and vascular damage and dysfunction in adrenaline.
Consumer Protection: Thyme is under our microscopeIbrahim AlQadi, the director of the Consumer Protection Unit in the Ministry of Economy, confirmed that “thyme, the herb found in every Palestinian house, is put under our microscope due to the failure of many recent tests in terms of microbes (coliforms) and fungi and the use of dangerous dyes to color it and pesticide residues”. According to AlQadi, many tons of thyme were destroyed.
He confirmed that the licensing of any establishment requires a commitment to the requirements of the Palestinian standards and obtaining a statement certification, where violating this exposes the owner of the establishment to legal accountability. He also called on citizens to report anything that raises doubts, because the consumer protection and health department can’t cover the thousands of products in the markets despite all the tests they do.
He added that in the case of the thyme manufacturers, the first to blame is the farmer who exposes his crop to unsafe use of pesticides. He says, “We appealed to the Ministry of Agriculture to intensify its follow-up on agricultural holdings and to find specialized agricultural engineers in this field in order to change the agricultural pattern, so it becomes friendly to the environment and the consumer health.”
He concluded by saying that there is great interest in conducting many tests by the Consumer Protection Unit in Palestinian laboratories in addition to the tests of the Ministry of Health, because the failure of thyme and other food products harm the reputation of local products in general, the confidence of the citizen and its reputation abroad through export.
Environmental health: Our tests do not include small farmers
Ibrahim Attieh, Director of the Environmental Health unit at the Ministry of Health, confirmed that his ministry examines the products of thyme in the market periodically by 80%, and usually they include large companies and factories, whether it is marketed locally or exported abroad. However the production of small farmers and cooperative societies are not subjected to examination due to the difficulty in following-up.
According to Attieh, large quantities of thyme produced by one of the Palestinian companies were damaged because of its failure in the laboratory tests.
Atiya explains the process of damaging products, where after the testing and confirmation of containing residues above the internationally allowed level, all the products, which samples of them were tested, are withdrawn from the market by tracking the company's invoices and tracking the merchants to whom the products were distributed.
As for the chemical residues in thyme, according to tests conducted by Afaq magazine, Attieh pointed out that there is no need for concern because it’s associated with some farmers who exaggerate the spraying process, and they need awareness to guide them on the best ways of using pesticides. He asserted that the destruction of factory goods due to the wrong spraying will deter the farmers because they want to sell and earn profit and they will not expose themselves to losses.
Ministry of Agriculture: We cannot control 111 thousand agricultural holdings but we confiscate prohibited pesticides
The Director General of Planning, Hassan Al-Ashqar, from the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture, responded to the magazine's question about the extent to which the ministry encourages the safe use of pesticides or the promotion of organic fertilizers in general. He emphasized that the 2018 Agricultural Strategy focuses on phytosanitary and the safe use of pesticides, but not the reduction of its use in an effort to match agricultural products with international and local standards related to food safety.
As for the control of the use (spraying and chemical fertilization) for thousands of dunums in the West Bank, it is a difficult process according to Al-Ashqar, given the number of limited agricultural extension agents in the ministry. Therefore, the ministry is working to establish a legal framework to control the circulation of agricultural products in coordination with the Consumer Protection Unit in the Ministry of Economy where they will begin to examine samples from the main market and wholesale markets, controlling the flow of farmers' goods into the market and preparing a register for each farmer.
But with transparency, Al-Ashqar acknowledges that the problem of toxic residues in thyme and all agricultural products in general is not solved in the laboratory, but through awareness and law enforcement. The Ministry of Agriculture announces the types of pesticides that are allowed to trade, which are less than those allowed by the occupation by 200 pesticides, but the problem lays in those smuggled from Israel.
Afaq magazine questioned the testing mechanism. Al-Ashqar pointed out that the goods coming from Israel usually have a certificate of origin and a permit from the Ministry of Agriculture so their source is known, however the local product is not checked prior to marketing because there is no legal framework yet (still in process as mentioned above), unless the Ministry receives complaints about high toxicity or irrigation with sewage water, then they interfere and damage the product after testing it in Palestinian or Israeli laboratories.
Organic does not tempt the farmer and the consumer does not value it
Why doesn’t the ministry encourage organic products? A question raised by the magazine. Al-Ashqar replied that it is possible, but in the end, agriculture is an economic interest of the farmer and controlled by the market, and the problem of organic is that its productivity is low, its shape is unattractive and those who value it are rare…therefore the farmer could lose. In order for organic to succeed, Al-Ashqar stressed the importance of focusing on awareness campaigns by the ministry.
About the weakness of organic productivity compared with chemical farming, the expert, Kurzom, refuted this claim explaining that the claim of supporters of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, that chemical farming increases the productivity of the soil; this claim is a fallacy. In fact, this increase is only temporary for a season or two, because as time goes on, agrochemicals spoil the soil and kill its fertility. Agricultural research has confirmed that the production of one kilogram of food by chemical methods leads to the loss of 6 kilograms of soil.
In addition, the claim that organic agriculture leads to a reduction in production is totally incorrect, because many types of crops are grown using very few chemicals, yet their productivity is not affected, but improved with the use of ecological and organic farming methods.
Translated by: Ghadeer Kamal Zaineh